People who are not from London are often keen to comment on how rude and unfriendly we are. I admit that many of us may not feel like chatting to you on the bus or train, eye contact is considered an act of aggression and no one smiles or says hello unless they are trying to chug you. However, there was a certain shade of politeness I had been entirely unaware of until I left the harboured waters of anonymity and ventured to our second city.
Ah Birmingham, that dazzling maze of conference centres, shopping malls and hotels. Does anyone actually live there? Of the few people who were populating that sprawl of urban blandery, two of them laughed at me. Openly. “What’s this?” I thought, accustomed as I was to the secluded polite aversion of the Londoner.
Had I done something particularly amusing? The last time I was openly laughed at in London was when I fell over getting on to the tube and only because I laughed first to relieve the tension. My embarrassment was moments later surpassed when two people fell over backwards on the up escalator. Obviously, I felt entitled to laugh openly at the legs I could see flailing helplessly over the hand rails, alternating between gripping my bursting sides, pointing, and nudging my co-spectators. Pressing the stop button at no point crossed my mind, I was having too much fun. At other times, when witness to spectacular escalator falls or anything that would be tragic had it happened to me, I have politely turned away and sniggled to myself in private. That painful-to-witness aversion of the gaze, it says it all, and is not rude.
What had I done on the fair concourses of Birmingham to provoke such laughter then? Firstly, when attempting to buy a train ticket from the machine, one of the people in the line guffawed to his friends “Too many options?” As it happens, in my opinion, when buying a ticket for a 12 minute journey, 10 options is indeed too many. Perhaps if I had mentioned this at the time to my mocking spectator I might have felt better, but we have all had that regret. Secondly, near the suspiciously empty Mailbox mall, I happened to have been startled by an unusually bold pigeon. Naturally I dodged, yet someone passing the other way found this inexplicably hilarious. I dodge pigeons all the time in London and I have never met with anything but sympathy and an unspoken understanding that had it been them they would have done the same thing. Or punched it.
So I would contest the idea that we Londoners are rude. I think the reality is that we are afflicted with that particular polite shyness which is often mistaken for an aloof disregard and interpreted by the insecure as rudeness or smugness. Visitors to London, fear not, we love you really, we just don’t know how to show it. Except tourists. We hate tourists.